Wynton Marsalis Settles In for A Cozy Hour

Wynton Marsalis is thinking small for a change.

“The Magic Hour,” the trumpeter’s new CD and his first for the Blue Note label, bears little resemblance to his previous offering. Released in 2002, “All Rise” was a sprawling, frequently stirring work that embraced big band, gospel choir and orchestral sounds. “The Magic Hour,” in sharp contrast, is a cozy and chummy affair, a nimble quartet session featuring vocal cameos by Dianne Reeves and Bobby McFerrin.

In terms of ambition and scope, “All Rise” marked a milestone in Marsalis’s 20-odd-year recording career, whereas “The Magic Hour” comes across as an intimately arranged suite, lighthearted and swinging.

What is the “magic hour”? According to Marsalis, it’s the time a family spends together every night, just before and after the kids go to bed. Precisely how this overarching theme relates to the album’s eight compositions isn’t always apparent, but that hardly matters. What’s impossible to miss is an air of spontaneity and playfulness — a genial atmosphere that’s evident the moment Marsalis teams up with Reeves on the opening track, “Feeling of Jazz.”

After establishing a slow and loping blues groove, the tune evolves into a spirited dialogue between the singer, scatting with gleeful, Ella-like aplomb, and the trumpeter, blowing bursts of smeared and pinched tones. Jazz instrumentalists are often guilty of tucking away a couple of vocal tracks on their albums for purely commercial reasons — a not-too-subtle bid for radio airplay. But Reeves plays a significant role on “Magic Hour,” helping create a relaxed and conversational mood that spills over into the quartet’s performances.

McFerrin’s contribution, on the other hand, is as playful as it is disposable. He breezes through “Baby, I Love You,” a bit of finger-snapping ephemera that he and Marsalis composed on the fly, or so it seems. Their collaboration makes for a hip and happy interlude, but it’s the kind of thing that McFerrin routinely pulls off in concert.

The remaining performances are more rewarding. When Marsalis first encountered pianist Eric Lewis, bassist Carlos Henriquez and drummer Ali Jackson, they ranged in age from 12 to 14. Now, a decade or so later, they’re playing alongside the best-known figure in jazz with impressive ease and plenty of personality.

Lewis, who won the Thelonious Monk International Jazz Piano Competition in 1999, stands out on several tracks. On “Free to Be,” his skating improvisation conjures the keyboard whimsy associated with the late pianist Vince Guaraldi, who composed the music for the early “Peanuts” animated television specials. Henriquez’s bowed bass lines add soulful ballast to the two-beat charmer “You and Me,” while Jackson displays exceptional sticks and brush work on the album’s now skittish, now swaggering title track.

Of course, Marsalis has his moments, too. His compositions draw on familiar elements — blues, swing, bop, ballads and Afro-Hispanic influences — but the arrangements are laced with vibrant twists and tangents. Nothing on the album is more engaging — or more reflective of the trumpeter’s New Orleans roots — than “Big Fat Hen,” a slice of soul jazz that occasionally evokes the sound of vintage Blue Note recordings. Playing opened and muted horns, Marsalis also brings a broad palette of tones to the album, from the raspy shouts heard on “Feeling of Jazz” to the wistful sighs that linger on “Sophie Rose-Rosalee.”

Will “The Magic Hour” be viewed as an essential Marsalis disc in the long run? Maybe not. Yet listening to this delightful 60-minute song cycle is time well spent.

Wynton Marsalis and his quartet take a playful direction in his eight-track CD, which features the voices of Dianne Reeves and Bobby McFerrin.

by Mike Joyce”
Source: “: Washington Post

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